What’s So Special About The Union Special 43200G Sewing Machine?

The Union Special, as it’s known to most by that name in the denim community, is the industrial sewing machine 43200G manufactured by Union Special. First produced in 1939, it was widely acclaimed to the point that it made the cover of The Needle’s Eye February edition of that year.

The article published in The Needle’s Eye magazine proclaimed it to be the newest and finest edition of Edge Lock machines designed for hemming overalls, jackets, and other similar garments. For the next 50 years, the 43200G was ‘the’ go-to American machine, but what made it so special? And why is the machine so coveted today?

What is the Union Special 43200G?

The Union Special 43200G was a chain stitch sewing machine manufactured between 1939 and 1989. While it is not the only chain stitch machine, the Union Specia 43200G is known for the ‘roping’ effect it creates on hems and seams, which is caused by a fault in the machine’s turner. There are three different models of Union Special hemmers, all of which have this fault.

What's So Special About The Union Special 43200G Sewing Machine?

Chain Stitched hem exhibiting roping via Reddit

Roping‘ has become one of the cornerstones of vintage denim examples and in turn, reproduction denim based on those vintage examples. The image above shows the effect that Union Special 43200G hemming has on a pair of jeans.

Chasing the Classic Look

In the 1960s, Japanese denim manufacturers started acquiring these machines. When Union Special stopped manufacturing them in ’89, it created a void in the marketplace for the ‘classic look’. Specialty denim shops in North America began trying to buy them up but the Japanese had effectively beaten them to the punch. The fault in the machine’s turner and the resulting roping pattern is the embodiment of wabi-sabi.

Union Special, The Needle's Eye - February 1939

So – what is it about the Union Special that makes it so special?

The saying: “They don’t make things like they used to” has never been more true. Before textile and garment manufacturers were shut down in droves here in North America and the machines that manufactured those goods were shipped to Asia denim was made here.

Old-school American-made denim is like nothing else being produced today. Maybe people are just nostalgic for denim that looks like our grandparents used to wear. More likely we are drawn to a certain quality that inexpensive machines with built-in obsolescence can’t produce.

So this is where we are now. The limited number of machines that are still in operation need constant care and maintenance since the last machine was manufactured in 1989. When the last of the machines breaks down – we will lose a look that has been the signature of denim from the early part of the last century.

Many thanks to Doug Kanies at Union Special for all his help with this article.